Lessons I learned from my mother 

It’s been 10 years since my mother died. I was 23, an adult by many measures but critically in other ways I wasn’t. For one, I was painfully unstable in my early professional steps.

In her final days, I sat with a bulky laptop in a hospital waiting room struggling with the feeling that I had as much control over her health as I did my job prospects. I was sad and frustrated and depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. So it follows that I didn’t take much time then to consider how much she had done for me.

Many years later, I still find it hard. I think of her often. In quiet moments when I’m doing something she loved or that she taught me, I still get the urge to call her. Sometimes, that makes me sad. But other times, as I’ve learned, my continuing on with things I know from her makes me glad. And because of my love of learning, it’s the memories of her teaching me something I love most.

I’ve shared before lessons I learned as a child, including ones from my father. Here are a few others that I associate most with my mother.

  • Opening up a bank account is investing in your future. This surely was both father and mother, but I remember being with her to get my little physical bank savings account passbook stamped with a fresh deposit. It’s my earliest financial memory and certainly my first saving memory.
  • Learning to save is independence: I remember once asking my mother for extra lunch money. She told me no. I got a $5 daily lunch allowance and since the school cafeteria lunch was something like $3, I could count myself lucky. Unlike some of my friends, I stuck to the cheap cafeteria lunch — I actually created a cafeteria-worshiping student group, but that’s for another time — to save money. Sometimes I would splurge and go out to a nearby deli, but mostly I saved. It is my first, most vivid money-spending memory.
  • Plagiarism is stealing. Via my father, I must have been one of the few middle schoolers in the 1990s who was listening to Simon and Garfunkel. I listened to them enough that when I started writing poetry, I thought they wouldn’t mind if I used a few of their lines in my own. I can still picture sitting in front of our early computer, proudly showing her my poem. I was furious with her when she criticized me for using what she quickly realized were somebody else’s words. The memory is seared into my mind for when I grasped the seriousness of that crime.
  • You gotta finish what you started. After years on my town’s municipal swim team, by middle school, I was fed up with the early morning summertime, chilly-water practices. I revolted. But I got that familiar lesson: you don’t quit a team midway through. I made a commitment to others that I had to complete.
  • Think about what future you might want from present you. Like a lot of us, I have a complicated relationship being raised a Catholic.
  • Know something at which you excel. After I won a high school essay-writing contest, my mother said to me “You’re a great writer,” in the kind of off-hand way that made clear she didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that. It was the first time I remember feeling really confident that I could be a writer of some kind some day. It was maybe all I ever wanted to hear from her then.
  • There was also a moment of distance, it was against her that I Railed to develop a sense of self.

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